It takes a deft touch to fuse historical events and person with fictional plots both simple and complex. It’s not like “Scooby Doo Meets The Three Stooges” or triple like that. Some authors like James Ellroy and E.L. Doctorow are masters of their milieu. Others like Caleb Carr and Glen David Gold are growing in stature. Their novels, if you are a fan of history, are like spending a day at the candy store or taking in a show at the Roxy Theatre (sorry, had to work at least one 1920’s reference in there to justify the blog). If you’re masochistic enough to have read enough entries in my blog, you know that my fiction is based on events that happened in Hollywood film entry: from Pola Negri’s arrival in America to the still-unsolved murder of director William Desmond Taylor to Chaplin and Fairbanks’ Liberty Bond rallies in New York in 1918. I use them because I know them and because I can come up with a plot that uses those facts, but isn’t those facts. Yes, you can take liberties with the past–that’s why it’s called “fiction.” It doesn’t always have to be 100% accurate. In my first novel I had to move the founding of MGM from 1925 to 1924 because, otherwise, it wouldn’t have fit my plot. Although some my balk, it’s a such a small change that only overheated film geeks with obsessive fixations–like me–would probably care.
Here’s some recommended authors that no one what they’re doing with the past.
1. James Ellroy: the master. Nobody writes like Ellroy–I don’t think anyone could write like him. His novels are benzedrine-fuled nightmares; propelled by a be-bop rhythm and wild, almost psychedelic streams of consciousness that keeps you as interested as a junkie looking for a fix. The man is funny, savage and pleasant twisted and his “LA Quartette,” in particular his best known novel, “LA Confidential” are infused with a lot of characters from Los Angeles of the 1940’s and 50’s. No one in Ellroy’s books is an innocent, even those best intended break the law and always end up with as much blood on their hands as the bad guys. His work is violent, sex-filled, and outlandish–and the star of the show is always the city of Los Angeles in all of its corrupt glory. While it helps to know a bit about the city’s history, you don’t really need to know, but be forewarned–his novels are all linked together in terms of story and characters, so if you’re going to follow him into Hell, try and read the stories in other. Recommended: The LA Quartette: The Black Dahlia, White Jazz, LA Confidential and The Big Nowhere–in that order. And if you’ve seen “LA Confidential,” the movie, note that it’s only about half the book.
2. E.L. Doctorow: A superb technician is wedding historical fact into fictional prose. Everyone is probably aware of “Ragtime”–the book is far better than the play or the movie. Doctorow writes are more varied kind of novel than Ellroy, but his stories don’t skimp on a similar kind of power and beauty of language. Recommended: The Water Works–a fascinating spin on the Frankenstein legend.
3. Glenn David Gold: He’s only written two books, but both are fascinating in terms of historical detail and plain chutzpah. His novels are a meditation on magic of sorts and the cost of attaining it. Carter Beats the Devil concerns a famous magician trying to devise the ultimate illusion while proving himself innocent of the murder of President William McKinley. Sunnyside juxtaposes Charlie Chaplin’s search for happiness in Hollywood with the ill-fated volunteers who fought the Bolsheviks in Russia after the end of WWI and found their own curious kind of glory.
4. Caleb Carr: On the strength of “The Alienist” alone, Carr merits a mention on this list. An intricately detailed novel that plots the rise of forensic medicine in tracking down a serial killer in 1890’s New York, Carr uses the entire city as his canvas and then inserts real life city authorities in order to ratchet up the tension. It’s immediate follow-up, “The Angel of Darkness” was less successful, but still enjoyable. Sadly, Carr has never returned to this world and his successive novels have been disappointments. He is, nevertheless, a very good writer and someone who paints with words so you can literally see what’s happening on the page.
Anyone want to add a name to the list?